Get On Up
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” James Brown, 1968.
I graduated from college in 1969, and the social ramifications of that period changed me forever. JFK died in 1963 and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down in 1968. The Beatles arrived in 1964 followed by the British Invasion, and the Rolling Stones, The Byrds, et al. became a part of our lives.
On top of that, our country was embroiled in a misguided war in Vietnam which left over 50,000 American boys my age remembered on a memorial in Washington. Many of us passionately protested that war and yet then faced a draft that would send us a conflict that we opposed.
And on top of that, who could ever forget James Brown? The advent of rock and roll in the 1950s was controlled entirely on TV by white singers and a white audience. However, Barry Gordy’s Motown Sound helped to merge black and white teenagers in a fashion that spilled over into the Civil Rights Movement.
And yet James Brown was a lightning rod that sizzled with an electricity permeating black men and women under the age of 25. Combining a voice that hit octaves heard nowhere else with a flamboyant dance that was as original as it was stunning established him as an icon in the music world from the early 1960s through his death in 2006.
Director Tate Taylor has done us all a favor with his biographical film about James Brown’s life. The film flashes back and forth from his birth in rural Georgia in the 1930s to his performing in sold-out venues in Paris in the 1970s, and the movie leaves you a vivid picture of who he was and how he got there.
Mr. Brown’s childhood was horrible, and he was abandoned by both mother and father, forcing him to be raised by a caring woman played by Octavia Spencer. It was there that he discovered his love of music while watching religious revivals, and a match lit a musical bomb inside of him.
He was sentenced to a lengthy term in prison as a 17-year old after stealing a suit from a parked car, and he ended up befriended by a singer named Bobby Byrd, played wonderfully by Nelson Ellis, who was enchanted after listening to Brown sing behind bars. He helped obtain Brown’s release by convincing his mother and father to welcome him into their home.
You soon see Brown board a mythological train labeled “Fast Train to Fame.” He initially led a small group of compatriots in a band known as The Flames, and history awaited when they were discovered by Ben Bart, played by the always loveable Dan Aykroyd.
While Brown was an admitted singing phenom, he also possessed a diabolical sense of control. If fame, recognition and financial success required him to dump his friends, then so be it. Even when he struck his wife after accusing her of wearing a revealing blouse during a Christmas party at their home, he remained a difficult man to condemn when you remembered his childhood where his father repeatedly beat both him and his mother. It makes you wonder about the boyhood of the Ravens’ Ray Rice.
My wife and I have a new foreign exchange student from Saudi Arabia, and I took him to see Guardians of the Galaxy, which was my second viewing. (I loved it even more this time.) As I watched Chris Pratt embrace his love of dancing to 1970s music, I couldn’t help but think that he was simply reflecting a time when James Brown and others inspired all of us to dance.
While there are a number of very good supporting performances, this movie begins and ends with Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown. He impersonates him without a flaw, and his dancing and singing are monstrously effective. It was like bringing Brown back to life.
Though the film runs on a bit long given its material and its length of 2 hours and 19 minutes, Mr. Boseman’s creation is a work of art. He is even more powerful here than he was playing Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), and we are destined to see a lot from him in the future.
Get On Up serves to also remind us that we are a long way as a nation from settling our racial differences. Yes, we have a black President, but look at many of his vicious critics and their connection with our Antebellum South. Have recent white NBA owners embarrassed themselves sufficiently with scandalous racial remarks? And what happened in Ferguson, Missouri?
“Papa’s got a brand new bag.” Sing it, James!